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Whedon creates space cowboys in 'Firefly'

Monday, July 22, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. -- A big-name television producer creates a new show and films a two-hour pilot episode. Then his network decides not to air that as the premiere. Plus, the network doesn't show it to critics. These are typically signs of trouble in the TV biz.

Joss Whedon's new Friday night Fox drama "Firefly" remained shrouded in mystery until late last week, but after Fox has taken the wraps off its newest Whedon show, any cause for concern seems overblown.

Critics got to see a 40-minute version of the pilot, which, though not as revolutionary as the first episode of Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," showed promise.

During a visit to Stage 16 at the Fox studios, Whedon explained his concept for the series: a western in outer space.

Sitting in a director's chair in front of the ramp into the cargo bay of the Firefly-class space ship Serenity (imagine the back end of a Navy amphibious troop transport), Whedon said the goal was to do a show where space is the place, but the characters are entirely human. No aliens, no monsters, no robots.

"I believe we are the only sentient beings in the universe, and 500 years from now we will still be the only sentient beings around," Whedon said. "Aliens are something everyone else is doing."

Instead of laser guns, the heroes carry six-shooters. While visiting planets, they ride horses. The "Firefly" set looks heavy and has an industrial feel, even though it's made of wood, fiberboard and Styrofoam. Metal grating on the floor meets a hatch at each corridor junction. The ship's mess hall includes two walls of galley carts and compartments from a present-day jetliner.

Whedon was inspired to create "Firefly" after reading Michael Shaara's Civil War book "The Killer Angels" about the Battle of Gettysburg. "I got obsessed with the minutiae of life way back then," Whedon said, "early frontier life and when things were not as convenient as they are now. We wanted to do a show in the future that had a sense of history, that we don't solve all our problems and have impeccably clean spaceships."

Consider this the anti-"Star Trek." Set 500 years in the future, the series is not set on Earth, which won't be seen in the show, but in a solar system of several Earth-like planets that have been colonized by humans. It's an era in which American influences mingle with those of the Chinese -- Chinese newspapers and art decorate several "Firefly" sets -- and the series takes place following a civil war fought over whether planets should remain independent or join an alliance. The alliance won.

The transport ship Serenity is captained by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a defeated soldier who opposed unification. His crew includes second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) and her husband, Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship's pilot. There's a young engineer, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and a mercenary, Jayne (Adam Baldwin). The courtesan Inara (Morena Baccarin) entertains guests, a preacher (Ron Glass) attempts to spread religion and a secretive, wealthy doctor (Sean Maher) travels on Serenity with his fragile, young sister (Summer Glau).

The show features roots music as underscore, and when things explode in space, there's no sound.

"We just wanted to get away from the bombast of space, Space SPACE! It's just normal life and I wanted to put something else in people's heads. I didn't want the giant, orchestral, Jerry Goldsmith thing. I just felt like it had become de rigeur," Whedon said. Since there is truly no sound in space, Whedon nixed the expected explosion sound effects. "It also helped get rid of the idea of the space we've become used to seeing."

"Firefly" is largely influenced by westerns, but also the idea of colonization and the notion that all immigrants bring their past with them.

"I want it to be 'Grapes of Wrath' as much as 'Stagecoach,' " Whedon said. "It's not just about westerns, it's about life when it's hard and the idea of people always having the same problems they've always had ... We have nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things. I want to know what literal objects and moral structures they bring with them into every situation."

Conflict comes from encounters with others, whether it's the Alliance, a giant bureaucracy, or the Reavers, "men who have gone completely savage. They're cannibalistic, suicidal and destroy everything in their paths."

The original two-hour pilot will eventually air later in the season as a special, an origins story that shows the crew coming together. Fox executives want the crew already together in the first episode and they want more action and humor. Whedon began filming the new premiere episode last week.

"I did pitch it slightly more as a drama," Whedon said. "The action quotient has gone up and the first episode reflects those changes. But it's not a change in the world view, it's not a change in the characters, so ultimately they're changes I don't disagree with."

Avenging "Angel"

As if Whedon wasn't busy enough, his "Buffy" spinoff lost its caretaker when executive producer and co-creator David Greenwalt exited the series after talks broke down to renew his contract with "Angel" owner 20th Century Fox.

Greenwalt, who was immediately hired to run the ABC midseason drama "Miracles" ("a spiritual 'X-Files,' " Greenwalt called it) continues to consult on the show, but Whedon brought in David Simkins ("The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.") to oversee the series.

"What Joss said is a table can stand on three legs, it's better with four, it cannot stand on two," Greenwalt said. "Tim Minear, Marti Noxon, Joss Whedon and myself were the four horsepeople over there."

Whedon said the loss of Greenwalt means "much more work, the loss of a great creative partner, a lot of panic and terror and rending of clothes, but for the shows, I won't allow it to mean anything because I've got to keep them good. We're going to make it work without him."

The course Greenwalt was charting for the fourth season of "Angel" remains in play.

"We had next season planned, nothing's changed in the direction," Whedon said.

"Angel" moves to 9 p.m. Sunday this fall on The WB, and while producers will strive to continue already established stories (Warning: spoilers ahead), they see it as an opportunity for new viewers to come into the fold.

Vincent Kartheiser joins the cast as Angel's son, Connor, who will play an integral role.

"You've all seen the trailer for 'Road to Perdition'?" Simkins asked. "It says, 'Sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers.' We're aiming in that direction."

Lorne (Andy Hallett) will return from Las Vegas, where the cast and crew will shoot for three days on an upcoming episode. It's also likely Angelus, Angel's evil persona, will return mid-season and that may trigger a visit by a vampire slayer last seen in prison.

"Faith is a slayer, Angelus is a vampire," Simkins said. "I'll let you draw your own conclusions."

Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) will return from the higher plane she ascended to in the season finale, but she'll be "a little different."

It appears Wesley (Alexis Denisof) will remain a rogue demon hunter for a while, although the writers haven't figured out exactly what to do with the character.

"Wesley worked very well with the group, but there's some appeal to having him outside the group," Simkins said. "He fulfills a function, straddling the lines between good and evil."

That suits Denisof just fine.

"We're all interested in continuing where we left off with that exploration of the more complicated interior of the character," Denisof said, "and how he acts from that place rather than from the moral high ground which was really his modus operandi from the beginning."

Somehow, Whedon plans to be more involved in "Buffy" and "Angel" this season even as he launches "Firefly."

"The trick to it all is increased efficiency," Whedon said. "We're all aware we have to step up more than before ... I won't abandon 'Buffy' this late in the game, I won't abandon 'Firefly' this early and I especially won't abandon 'Angel' right in the middle because 'Angel' is the one nobody knows about. We're flying under the radar."

Whedon finds himself in a situation similar to David E. Kelley, who had three series -- "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and "Boston Public" -- on the air during the past two seasons.

"He seems to like to write for everything," Whedon said. "I like to write as little as possible, not because I don't like writing, I love it, but because if my writers get something right, I'm moving on."

Like Kelley, Whedon has an overall production deal with 20th Century Fox, the studio that produces all his series regardless of what network they air on. Whedon acknowledged there's pressure for proven producers with such contracts to generate new series for their studio.

"That pipeline is hungry," he said. "There's always enormous pressure and it turned out this year seemed like a good year to give into it [and add 'Firefly']. It's not just pressure, I feel an obligation when I have an overall deal. They afforded me the opportunity to make the show I'd been dying to make for years, so it worked out to everyone's mutual benefit."

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